Sunday, March 24, 2013


G'day mates!

I'm writing this post from Melbourne, Australia...I've been "Down Undah" for a little over a week and having a fabulous time. March has been an absolute whirlwind, but then, what else is new?

I began to month in the UK at the Majma Festival in Glastonbury. The theme for this year was "Viva La Diva" and festival director Raheesha and her amazing staff went all out on that front, even choreographing an adorable opening number featuring showgirls with incredibly huge feather headdresses and tributes to icons like Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Carmen Miranda and of course Queen Elizabeth... It was quite a spectacle! my co-headliners were Manca Pavli, a gorgeous tribal fusion dancer from Slovenia and Khaled Mahmoud , who brought the house down twice during the festival, leaving mouths agape with his crazy, energetic shaabi performance.

On the way up to the festival, the Royal Chauffeur Layla brought me to Stonehenge. I was surprised to see a cluster of helicopters hovering overhead and then found out that one of the UK's largest military bases is nearby- I now refer to the landmark as "Dronehenge"!

Just days after arriving back in LA, I left for Australia-the flight was LONG but it was so worth the jet lag. My first show was with Kylea Hartley of Tribe Vibe, at her amazing Vaudeville Club. Since the Adelaide Fringe Festival was on at the time, Kylea was able to pull from a pool of fantastic performers who'd come to Adelaide from all over "Oz" , including brilliant slapstick actor/dancer/comedian Rod Lara , glamorous snake dancer Flavella Lamour, and strongman Mr. Plonk, who lifted up four women ( selected from the audience) as they sat on swings attached to a long bar he hefted up on his shoulders!
The workshops the next day were held at Cinnebar Red dance studio, owned by the lovely dancer Evangeline . Because it was also my birthday , a couple of the gals baked me a cake, and Evangeline gifted me with a gorgeous tiara she'd made by hand using vintage rhinestone pieces. I was speechless with shock ... And once again blown away by the generousness of the members of the worldwide dance community!

That night, Kylea took me to The Fringe Festival , which I can only describe as a cross between a cool old vintage carnival and... Burning Man meets SRL . There were crazy mechanical contraptions built by mad geniuses , wild sideshows full of antique carnival artifacts and weird fringes acts going on everywhere in tents and on the midway . We saw the alternative circus show "Limbo" which featured incredible acrobats from all over the world, hot Fosse style jazz dancing, contortionists, fire eating, magic illusions and aerial acts. As we left the midway, sideshow artist The Space Cowboy juggled three chainsaws... And they were running! Happily, he didn't have an accident!

Kylea's home is in Aldinga Beach, a remote ocean-side community just outside of Adelaide. It was just a short walk to the beach and literally steps into the bush... We went on our own little "walkabout" and saw lots of kangaroos in the wild... When we finally walked back to civilization, I actually started to cry it was so amazing! The next day we went to Urimbirra wildlife preserve , where we saw wombats, emu, koalas bears , wallabies and over 80 kangaroos...which you could pet and feed!! I was in heaven- and now I totally want a kangaroo for a pet!!

Melbourne, located in a different state that Adelaide , is large cosmopolitan city and full of terrific dancers. My hostess Alia has been solo soliciting to my every Royal whim. The classes were held at Azura's Oasis, a lovely studio on Sydney Road, and I did a show at La Di Da with Sapphira's Showgirls. Sapphira is an Aussie, but we'd met and worked together years ago in London, at her popular Shimmy Shake show in Soho, a belly dance and burlesque show highlighting the best of both genres. The show in Melbourne was similar with beautiful belly dancers Bella and Ianessa, and hot burlesque performances from Miss Honey Potts and Sapphira herself.

Last night, Alia held an all 1920's themed extravaganza at The Heidelburg Center in the historic Ivanhoe section of Melbourne. The venue was lovely, all Art Deco and complimented the show theme perfectly! Azura and her troupe started the show off with an adorable Charleston number which really set the theme for the evening. Many of the acts were vintage/ flapper/ 1920's themed, like the sword dance done by the Ma-Ahmala duet and the peacock number by Trisnasari and her students, which looked like an Erte drawing come to life. I was really pleased to see a number of superb male dancers, too, including Aussie fusionista Baze (who said once he saw Rachel Brice , he never looked back) and Greek dancer Jimmy Hellas, a cat- eyed, athletic performer whose been dancing all his life. Crowd pleaser Ferdie blew me away too; Turkish and Macedonian, his stage presence was brilliant and sassy, he flirted with the audience shamelessly as he put on a fierce cabaret show. Everything I'd hear about him was true-- and more!!!

Anyway, that's about it for now...I'm having the time of my life Down Undah, and here for a few more days before I hit Honolulu for MEDAH workshops and a show on this Friday, March 29 at The Venue, 1144 Bethel St. If you're on the Island of Oahu, I hope you'll join me!

Info and tix here:

Sunday, March 10, 2013


  Ssssalutations  Ssssweetie...thinking of performing with a snake?

 Throughout the years, serpents have always been associated with belly dancers, even though dancing with snakes has no foundation in traditional oriental dance.

 From a modern perspective, the association with snakes and belly dance probably  came about because the serpentine undulations in oriental dance echoes the movements of the snake, but  serpents have worshipped for centuries, linked with rituals, the supernatural and the divine. We are all familiar with the serpent that tempted Eve with knowledge in the Garden of Eden, but in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Minoa and Crete, snakes were highly symbolic. They were often associated with goddesses like Ishtar, Egyptian deity Renenutet,  and the gorgons of Greek mythology, including Medusa, were female human/snake hybrids. Serpents were also an important part of the Dionysian cults, and in pre-Christian  rituals in the West. 

In India and The Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia) snake charmers are still a common sight on the streets and in the souks. In America  and Europe during   the last century, women  belly dancing ( or doing an approximation of belly dance) with snakes were often a staple in touring carnival sideshows.  The 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book , featured  the number  Trust In Me ( The Python's Song)  a sardonic ditty performed by Sterling Holloway, as Kaa the serpent, who attempts to seduce the main character Mowgli, before making a meal of him. This song has been covered extensively by  rock and roll artists ( by Siouxsie And The Banshees and The Dead Brothers, among others) and has become popular with fusion style  performers dancing with snakes. 

 The use of snakes within contemporary belly dance is widely thought to have originated with the storied pioneer Jamila Salimpour, who danced with snakes in her groundbreaking Bal Anat shows during the 1970’s at the Northern California Renaissance Faire. 

Today, belly dancers of all styles incorporate snake dancing into their shows, with the most commonly used snakes being pythons or boa constrictors. These breeds seem hardier and more adapted to stage work, and can grow to impressive sizes as well.

If you are thinking about owning –and dancing with- a snake, there are many points to contemplate:

 First, snakes are NOT dance props; they are living creatures that need tender loving care the  same way any companion animal would.

 Housing And Feeding
 Snakes need to be housed in containers,such as a large aquarium or reptile cage that is climate controlled, well aerated and most importantly, secure. These reptiles can definitely rival Houdini in that they are notorious escape artists; they can squeeze through very small openings and are also liable to push out of an unsecured cage door or cage lid quite easily. They are also shy, particularly during molting, and will need plenty of room in their enclosures to hide.  Snakes need to have a sizable water bowl  (which will have to be changed and cleaned often) in which to soak. Their living spaces will also have to be cleaned out completely at least every few weeks.

Snakes are predatory and carnivorous-they like to eat mice, rats, frogs, earthworms-even baby chicks. Though they usually only feed every couple of weeks, they do need to eat, so if you think that putting live prey in their cages will freak you out, it’s comforting to know that most snakes will accept a meal that has already been killed… but this will  mean that you’ll most likely have a freezer full of dead rodents!

Transporting Snakes To Gigs
 When you are bringing a snake to a show, your foremost concern should be the snake’s comfort and well-being. 

Many dancers use large woven baskets or those self- locking plastic crafts containers (with holes drilled into the lid) padded with blankets or towels. Another option is a pet carrier, again padded for warmth.

Once you arrive at your gig, find an out-of-the-way to place to store your snake’s temporary home that isn’t cold or drafty. Some dancers even take along a small heating lamp along to add warmth. If you’re sharing a dressing room, let other dancers know that there is a live snake present and ask them to be respectful of its comfort. This will keep your snake safe and secure, and also serve a warning to anyone who may have a snake phobia…which will avoid creating chaos backstage!

 Dancing With Snakes
 Snakes need to be approached slowly and handled in a calm, firm and deliberate way.  Their bodies need to be fully supported, and they must to know that the person handling them is relaxed. Snakes get stressed from sudden movements and they can also sense fear or nervousness, which will make them become agitated. One you have taken your snake out of it’s house, let your snake slowly discover you, remaining still while the snake slithers around your body, exploring.
 Never attempt to dance with your snake until you are comfortable handling it!

  Before you start dancing with your snake, select a costume that will not harm him. Your snake dancing costume should be sturdy, and in my own opinion, smoother and less decorated is better. Beaded fringe and other delicate or potentially sharp embellishments (hello… the prongs used to set rhinestones and crystals) are not a good-or safe-idea.   Many dancers wear coined costumes while dancing with snakes, but again, check that the coins don’t have jagged or sharp edges that can potentially injure your snake.

Snakes really cannot be trained, period. Snake dancing usually means letting the snake slither and glide around you while you perform, therefore, slower musical pieces and improvisation are mandatory, because you can never be sure what kind of mood your “dance partner” is in!

Remember that your snake is a reptile, not an entertainer!

Respect this, and mentally prepare for anything that might occur during the course of your show. Your snake may be frightened by bright stage lighting, loud decibels, and the crowd you are dancing for. Also, some vibrations in the music itself can potentially make the snake edgy.  He might want nothing more than to hide in your hair, or he may get aggressive and try to bite you, or start to constrict you. Move slowly and carefully, and try not to agitate the snake. 

 When you are done performing, bring your snake back to his traveling container, and try to get him back home into a safe and quiet environment as soon as possible.

 Do I have to tell you never to leave your snake in a parked car? I thought not!


 Actress Maria Montez (1940's)
Dancer Heather Shoopman and friend: Zulu Lounge,  Los Angeles, 2012

Thursday, March 7, 2013


 Teaching belly dance is extremely fulfilling and enjoyable. It’s lot of fun, and rewarding for the instructor and students alike. There’s nothing quite like the joy that comes from helping women to discover themselves through a creative art which encourages self-expression. Watching your students starting out as awkward newbies and blossoming into beautiful, self-assured dancers is incredible! By the very act of teaching, you’ll be enhancing the artistic development of your students, and will become a better dancer yourself, because you’ll have to consider movement and technique breakdowns such as isolations and shimmy mechanics. You’ll be forced to drill along with your students, keep track of posture and body alignment, and invent combinations- all of which can only lead to cleaner technique for you. Teaching will also supplement your income…or as the case may be, feed your belly dance addiction!

Unfortunately, in the belly dance community-perhaps more than in any other dance community-there will always be instructors who have absolutely no business teaching…at all.  The  “six week wonders”- women who’ve taken an introductory course and then set up shop as a qualified instructor- have been a problem for decades. The saddest part of this phenomenon is that beginning students will not know the difference, and may be taking classes from someone who knows nothing about safe posture and basic technique, let alone the cultural aspects of the dance.

  Teaching is a huge responsibility.

 In order to be a competent instructor, it’s imperative that you have experience, the ability to break down movements verbally as well as physically, and to have at least a basic working knowledge of what muscle groups are being used and how to describe where each specific movement is originating from.  You need to have more than just a passing familiarity with whatever style of belly dance you are teaching- you’ve got to know the signature moves of the style, where it came from, and so on. In laymen’s terms, you need to know your shit.

 There are many ways to start a teaching career, and each one is as valid as any of the rest. Every so often, it just sort of happens- the way it did to me. I hadn’t even considered teaching, but I kept getting requests from friends or other dancers.  I started holding informal Saturday morning classes -in my sister’s living room! My classes were getting crowded, and, like, my four-year-old niece would be running in and out of the room, wrapping herself up in everyone’s veils! It quickly became apparent that I needed to move to a real studio. 

 Often a local teacher will move or retire, and designate a star student to take her place as the instructor; some dancers start off substitute teachers at the their dance studio, or apprenticing themselves to an instructor there before beginning their own classes. Many prospective teachers decide to get certified by master teacher or a dance school, in a unique format or style of belly dance, while others come to teaching in a more organic way, developing on their own. Any way is fine, it just depends on what you’re teaching, and where. Whether you choose to be certified or not, it goes without question you’ll need a broad understanding of the dance in it’s myriad forms and knowledge of your local scene as well as the world-wide belly dance community. You should have been learning from a variety of teachers and workshop instructors, and broadened your horizons by attending several workshops,  festivals and events.

An experienced performer might be a superlative dancer, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that she’ll be a good teacher.

 Performing skills and a flourishing career can be a definite plus for a dance instructor, but they don’t guarantee that she will have what it takes to be a good coach. Teaching is an art form, and some people are blessed with a natural gift for teaching. Several dancers teach but prefer performing, some do both equally well and enjoy it all, and there are also those who don’t care for it and don’t have the patience or personality needed to become a great instructor.

 As a teacher, you’ll be facing a myriad of students, all with different needs, a wide range of physical abilities and/or talent, and a bunch of reasons for even considering the study of belly dancing. Some women decide to take classes for amusement; others are serious trained dancers who want to develop their skills.  You need to be able to discern the needs of your students and treat them as individuals.

 After I was teaching for a while, I noticed that it seemed like I had an awful lot of students who were coming to me from some sort of traumatic situation such as a divorce, a mastectomy, an eating disorder, miscarriage, or just a plain old midlife crisis.  I wondered what was up with that, but when I discussed this phenomenon with other teachers, I found that it wasn’t uncommon. My friend Suhaila Salimpour told me something to the effect of  “When I see women coming into my classes, I know it means they are ready for a major life  change or transition.”

 This is not to say that you’ll be holding classes in The Land Of The Broken Toys, but you’ll probably find that many of your students do have a back-story that isn’t necessarily all about fun or experiencing a new adventure. That means that in addition to technical skills, as a teacher you’ll need to hone your emotional intelligence, and be able to zero in with the skill of trained psychologist to ascertain what makes your students “tick”.

There is no one type of student. Some work diligently, progress quickly and start performing, while others are just taking the class to lose weight.  Certain students desire corrections, critique and brutally honest assessment, but to others, this may seem humiliating. Then there are students who will chatter incessantly, question every word you say, and act out in other ways disturbing to the class as a whole. You’ll need to be able to command a class without seeming like a tyrant, keeping the atmosphere light and fun, but educational. This takes a lot of finesse and sensitivity.

 Whether you’re teaching already or just thinking about it, here are some points to consider:

Student Safety Comes First
 It’s crucial that you practice and teach safe posture and thorough warm-ups and cool downs. You can never be too careful about this anyway, but once you throw students into the mix, you are now responsible for the well being of others. Ask your students point blank if they are currently dealing with any injuries or infirmities that you should be aware of. Let them know that it’s all right to speak up if they have health issues or if a movement feels strange or is hurting them, and that it’s fine for them to take a breather if they feel the need to. Remind them to stay well hydrated. 

If you think you may be lacking knowledge in the area of health and safety, general anatomy and biomechanics, then by all means, before you start teaching you must familiarize yourself (at the very least in a broader sense) through taking fitness classes and adjunct courses, and also by reading as much as you can on these subjects. While you are teaching, pay strict attention to the body alignment and posture of your pupils, focusing on areas that are prone to injury, especially the spine, hips and knees. Correct your students and remind them often about their posture.

Begin your warm up with large, soft movements that articulate every area of the body, before continuing into some lightly aerobic dancing, lifting the arms above chest level before beginning to stretch. Static stretching and stretching cold muscles can  cause injury. It was once believed that stretching was the way to warm up, but that theory is outdated…and dangerous. Once your students are warmed up, they can begin to stretch. Have them hold a comfortable stretch without straining, and do not allow them to bounce. A class cool down is important for injury prevention as well. Always allow a few minutes for a thorough cool-down at the end of class.

 Be sure that the studio where you are teaching has insurance -and a first aid kit!  You may also want to look into taking first aid or CPR classes and obtain teaching insurance as well.  There are many companies that offer insurance specifically for dance and fitness instructors.

The Responsibility Of Knowledge
As a teacher, it’s your job to shape your students into well-rounded dancers. This is a responsibility that should never be taken lightly. Not only will your students reflect upon you, but also you’re assuring the future of our beautiful art form! It doesn’t matter what style you’re teaching-you have to know fundamental belly dance history. Students are curious and will have many questions; they’ll wonder about rhythms, costuming, cultural traditions and the countries they came from, when to play finger cymbals, song titles, famous dancers of the past and present- and you need to know the answers. If a question stumps you, admit you don’t know the answer, but do have research materials on hand or refer the student to someone who does know.

Focused Teaching Means Better Learning
Write out your lesson plans well in advance so you can have your students work towards goals.  Plot out exactly what topics you’ll be going over in each class, so your sessions will have a good flow. Make notes on any combinations or choreographies you’ll be using and refer to them in class if you need to. Create class CDs or an iPod play list so you don’t have to waste time fumbling through your music to find the appropriate track.

Know that even if you’re teaching a beginning class, your students will have a wide array of abilities. In any class, there are those with natural talent and/or prior training, and those who will need to work harder to get up to speed. It’s absolutely vital that you be prepared for this.

It’s important to know that there are three basic types of dance students:

 Auditory learners need to hear the movements, rhythms and counts described verbally. Visual learners must have sight references and like to see the technique before absorbing it. Kinesthetic learners absorb the movements physically, benefiting from a literal hand-on approach.   Be sure to ask a student if it’s OK to touch them before you do.

Many students are a combination of all three types, so it’s wise to integrate your teaching with visual, auditory and kinetic techniques.

Don’t be afraid of boring the class with drilling, repetition helps students retain what they’re learning by engaging muscle memory. Make sure to demonstrate any movements or combinations by facing towards the class, away from the class and offering a side view. Keep an eye on your pupils, checking frequently for posture, body alignment, weight placement, and incorrect or unsafe technique. Don’t single anyone out- offer corrections in a generalized way.  Have the class perform technique and combinations facing towards-and away from- the mirrors.  Experiment with spatial orientation and add variety to your classes by forming lines, making a circle, dividing the class into groups and having them perform for each other.

Foster A Structured Learning Environment
Having a set pattern for your classes will aid your students in efficient learning. Creating a learning environment that is fun, challenging and informative will keep your students interested and encourage them to strive for their personal best. It will also help them retain what they’re learning, because they’ll grow familiar with your methodology and know what to expect from you-and what is expected from them. How you create this framework is your decision. I like to structure my classes this way: A few minutes of gentle, full-body activity followed stretching; technique drills, then either new movements, short combinations, a specialty or choreography, and finishing up with a cool down.

Teacher-Student Relationships
 Keep your interactions with students relaxed and pleasant; building a learning environment that is fun, challenging and informative. Create an atmosphere of respect, for the dance itself, from student-to-student, and for you as their leader. Sometimes students get excited and like to chat with each other, ask questions and make comments; allowing for a little of this is fine, just don’t let the class run away with itself! Through compliments and positive reinforcement, encourage your pupils to focus on the curriculum instead of socializing. Provide positive feedback and keep your critique constructive and gentle. Notice the personal qualities students have to offer, help them feel good about their unique development and progress. Have them strive for excellence without creating an atmosphere of competition.  Try not to play favorites- there will always be a few star students, but those who don’t shine as brightly or who are more reticent need your love, too. While some of your students may be your personal friends outside of the studio, during class, maintain a slightly removed but open and friendly professional distance…you are, after all, the educator. Cultivate your leadership by being a role model.

Every so often, you might be faced with a problem student. This can take many faces, including (but not limited to) know-it-alls who’ll always have a “better” explanation than you do and take it upon themselves to offer correction to other class members; the ultra-needy types who constantly hog your attention, extremely competitive or aggressive pupils, or those who use precious class time for gossiping, joking and fooling around   Don’t let anyone usurp your authority; nip these behaviors in the bud as soon as they start, or it will be a continuing problem. In some cases, a light admonishment in class will do the trick; otherwise a private talk before or after class is in order. If the problem child continues to turn your classroom dysfunctional, sadly, sometimes the only option will be to ban the student and offer her a refund.

Establish Goals and Create Opportunities
There are many ways to get students enthused about learning to dance and becoming a member of the local dance community. Establishing goals early on will give your students something to strive for.  Students always respond well to this and delight in measuring their personal successes and accomplishments. Compile a class mailing list and send out newsletters letting your students know about belly dance performances and events happening in your area.  Have a video night where students can watch clips of famous dancers or dance-related movies; hold a halfla or dance party in your studio where everyone can dance and mingle. If your students are ready, you might want to form a student troupe that also holds rehearsals outside of class, with the goal being to perform.

 Don’t be jealous or a separatist- know that your students will only benefit from learning from a variety of teachers. 
A great teacher is a generous teacher!

Invite guest instructors or lecturers to teach workshops or talk about specialized styles. Network with other studios, dance schools or instructors within your community or recommend that your students explore taking classes from others, whether belly dance or some other form of dancing.

 The Teacher Needs Homework, Too
The most important thing you can offer your students is knowledge. It’s your duty to keep abreast of what’s going on in the Middle Eastern dance community, whether locally, nationally or globally. Continued study and research on your end will only make you a better teacher… so don’t be afraid to attend workshops side-by-side with your students. Subscribe to belly dance trade publications, join Internet forums, seek out other instructors with specialties and learn from them, do research on line or at the library.

 Set an example for your students by showing them that learning is a never-ending process!